January 15th, 2016

DSC_0829On Sunday afternoon I was belatedly taking down the Christmas decorations whilst listening to the new Bowie album, Blackstar. I was contemplating the obsession with death on the two accompanying videos with Major Tom’s jewel-encrusted skull lying on a distant planet and an eyeless prophet trying to rise from his deathbed with memento mori scattered around the bleak roomset. Of course I didn’t realize that Bowie was talking about his own imminent demise – he used to sing Jacques Brel’s My Death often enough in concert for me not to be anxious. But come Monday morning, as a self-confessed Bowie tragic who had bought everything he ever recorded, seen him in concert 7 times and stood feet away from him at a Kentish Town Tin Machine concert, I joined all the other Bowie fans across the globe united in disbelief and a hope that this might be one last Bowie sleight of hand.

Much has been and will be written about his soaring, insistent, ever-shifting music, his multiple costumes (over 70 iconic designs in one year alone) his visionary stagecraft and his unfailing ability to control the media. But as a stage-struck teenager and future copywriter there was something else equally important for me: his lyrics. From the moment I heard the questioning otherness of Changes on the radio I was hooked. The words to The Bewlay Brothers channelling his half-brother’s schizophrenia, a theme he often returned to, still give me goosebumps.

And so it continued down the years. The melancholy beat of loss in Five Years, the tumbling alliterations on the Diamond Dogs album, the Clockwork Orange daggers on Outside, the enigmatic self-referencing of the late albums giving the lie to those who thought he never wrote from the heart. Many fans have described his music as the soundtrack of their lives. For me his lyrics often also provided the commentary.

Like all Bowiephiles I could go on and on (longer than The Chant of the Ever-Circling Skeletal Family even) but suffice it to say that his amazing zeugmatic, oxymoronic wordplay (pretentious, moi? as Bowie once self-deprecated), often inspired by Burroughs’ cut-up technique, continued to inspire and wrongfoot in equal measure right to the end.

So what’s all this got to do with an advertising blog – apart from the obvious influence Bowie has had on all forms of creative endeavour, commercial and otherwise? Well, in 1963, before leaving to pursue music and join the Beckenham arts laboratory, Bowie enjoyed a brief career in the creative department of Nevin D Hirst Advertising in London.

He would have made a great copywriter. But I’m very glad he didn’t.


Do you want to forge a collaborative new customer interface? Or just sell your product?

March 5th, 2013

We live in strange times in the land of marketing. My inbox is replenished daily by a stream of snake oil salesmen trying to sell me the next can’t fail marketing trick. Or equally often a seminar at which you can hear someone talking about it at vast expense. Some of the sub-Brentian marketing speak has to be seen to be believed. Only this week I was exhorted to try ‘socialising the enterprise’ but usually the focus is on conversations with customers, reinventing the consumer/manufacturer relationship, working out a new dynamic where the brand creates a relationship with the customer rather than, heaven forbid, actually sells to them. Pseud’s corner would have a field day.gobbledygook

Somehow the advent of the internet and social media has made many marketeers take leave of their collective senses or at least allowed them to entertain the gobbledygook being served up. The internet and all things on it are an essential new suite of marketing tools, able to reach people faster and with better targeting than ever before. But people haven’t suddenly changed. They don’t want a relationship with their soap powder. They want one that does the job at the best price. Nor do they want to want to love their energy supplier like they love John Lewis as SSE’s CEO recently aspired to. They want a reliable product, a fair, transparent price and a call centre that solves their problems quickly and efficiently.

Too much energy is being expended on thinking up ever more convoluted ways of expressing the relatively simple notion of selling a product to people and too little on creating relevant, engaging selling ideas for the brand. Too often all the marketing claptrap results in nothing more than setting up a chummy Facebook site or wince-inducing twitter feed. Whereas the focus should be on presenting your product in the most informative, creative and engaging way.

Bribing people to like your Facebook page might make you look good but it won’t increase your sales alone. Nor will filling it with irrelevant creative content. There is a current lazy trend of commissioning/using someone else’s funny idea then slapping your brand name on it. I suspect people don’t feel grateful to brands for bringing them entertainment, assuming they can remember which brand it was that delivered the content. Watching teenagers use the internet it’s clear they don’t want their content branded – they like things to be anarchic, self-discovered, democratic and random.

So let’s ditch all the weird jargon and get your agency’s copywriters and designers to do what they are best at: presenting your product’s strengths in the most engaging, informative, witty and eye-catching way possible. Sometimes that might use humour, sometimes it might require hard-hitting facts but let it always be relevant.

Marketeers should stick to what they’re good at – selling to their customers, where at least the relationship is an honest one. Use your copywriters and designers to create relevant, witty, selling content and you’ll find, whatever the medium, digital or traditional, you will get a far more tangible result. Check out the new TV ad. It hasn’t socialized the client’s enterprise, but it is funny, immediate and relevant.

Mad, bad and dangerous to show

February 22nd, 2012

Last Friday a new advertising panel show aired and it did nothing to raise the standard of dire advertising-inspired programmes on TV. It is debatable whether the world really needs another panel show – OK they are cheap but sadly so are most of the jokes. This latest effort, the Byronically titled The Mad Bad Ad Show, certainly didn’t look like it was going to break the mould.

The host, Mark Dolan, has made a career out of being a bit annoying which is unfortunately not the best qualification for a panel game host. His teams consist of the usual rent-a-standup comedians with the addition of a couple of almost entirely superfluous ad people in Kate Stanners of Saatchi and Saatchi and Simon Chamberlain, a planning director. They sat uncomfortably close to each other on a sofa trying to look amused at the witty ‘ad’ libs being made on either side of them. They had clearly been told to leave the funnies to the experts, although on the evidence of this show they shouldn’t have worried.

It was nice to see some great old ads and to hear a name check for Bob Brooks who directed the first commercial I ever wrote – even if the ads chosen have rather been done to death on the ‘best of’ countdown shows that litter the schedules almost as freely as panel shows. The ‘complete the slogan’ round had some legs, not so the interminably lame spoof commercials made by the two team captains.

Whilst the equivalent task in The Apprentice usually serves up some accidental classic of crassness, these were supposed to be funny. I assume Sacha Baron Cohen is currently suing Micky Flanagan for nicking his Borat character for the first offering and, as for the second, it could at least claim to have had a rather fetching soundtrack from the reclusive French chanteuse SoKo. Before the commercials were shown, we were treated to a toe-curling creative briefing in which the unnamed agency participants looked in embarrassment at their pencils or pretended to take furious notes.

Our adland gurus were eventually asked to judge the resulting commercials, both giving the kind of clenched teethed praise that a creative director gives to the latest ideas from the client’s son to whom he is reluctantly giving a month’s work experience. No-one mentioned the obvious fact that neither ad would have a snowflake’s chance of getting past the ASA nor that each ad went on for about half an hour (or maybe it just seemed like it).

A shame really that at a time when the advertising industry has so fully embraced the need for products to engage with their audiences, that this programme so singularly failed to do so.

Are your e-shots firing blanks?

January 27th, 2012

Finding your inbox besieged by e-shots is a common problem. From the recipient’s point of view this can be a minor irritation, but for the sender the implications are more concerning.

On some days I receive over 100 e-shots, so the question is how do you make your company’s effort stand out. The advent of off-the-shelf designs and the very cheap cost of entry for sending e-campaigns have encouraged more and more companies to use this medium. But the downside of this DIY approach is that sometimes the content is lacking in interest. Employing a creative team to give your e-shots an edge may seem an unnecessary extravagance but if no one is looking at your emails, you may as well not bother.

An experienced copywriter will ruthlessly question what you are offering and distil your message into something compelling and eye-catching. With a dispassionate perspective they may well spot angles you have overlooked or become too familiar with. An art director will not only add something visually exciting to your e-shot but will also ensure that the design conforms with your company’s overall style guide, adding the consistency that reflects a company’s professionalism. There are also various words, phrases and styles of presentation to avoid if you want more of your emails to avoid the spam box. If you are looking to provide more of an e-newsletter, make sure the articles are of genuine interest to your readers, not just thinly disguised attempts at a hard sell. In short it’s worth spending the money you’ve saved on postage and print on the creative input that will make sure every e-shot hits the mark.

Creativity wins out – when it’s relevant

Last year’s IPA report confirmed what we creative agencies have always maintained – that creativity has a direct effect on ROI. Creative ads do generate more sales. A word of caution though: even with all the analysis tools at the disposal of today’s marketer there is still room for misleading stats to suggest average work is stunningly effective. Getting enormous number of hits on a viral ad is not conclusive proof of a successful campaign. Apart from the fact that skilful web operatives will have indulged in viral seeding to boost the number of hits, there is not necessarily a link between an entertaining piece of film and a sale.

This is particularly the case where the viral film has no intrinsic link to the product. Take the recent spate of ads featuring animated animals, cuddly toys, household objects. Where the product is intrinsically linked to the idea this works well – look at the success of those ubiquitous Meerkats. This fulfils an old criterion of good advertising – that the campaign could not be used for any other product. But whilst this rule is too much of straitjacket today (pardon the impending pun), it’s hard to see the connection between dancing second hand clothes and Cadbury chocolate. Emperor’s new clothes more like.

Waterstone’s watershed

There has been much debate about the vanishing apostrophe on Waterstones. As a copywriter, I am usually pretty hot on poor grammar and spelling in marketing communications, but I have to say this issue doesn’t particularly concern me. We are, after all, talking about a logo here, so the word’s physical shape is important as well as the sound. Spelling and grammar are secondary in a brand name – Toys R Us, Phones4u, Flickr and Xperia all deliberately flout normal conventions. And of course when it comes to the web, urls are no respecters of punctuation. So if your name’s O’Flaherty-Smythe it’s probably best to call your bookshops something else.


June 28th, 2011

In a visual age, copywriting may seem to have become a downgraded part of the creative process, and yet in many ways it should now be even more central. The need to present your product or service as succinctly as possible is crucial in today’s marketing environment. Twitter’s 140 characters are, after all, what copywriters have been doing for decades – distilling compelling and interesting messages into snappy soundbites. And with attention spans ever shorter, the copywriter’s art is indispensable.

Why then are there so many examples of sloppily written ads and websites? It’s a commonplace that the explosion of texting has impoverished people’s ability to spell and use grammar meaningfully. The texts of the juror who recently contacted the defendant is a good example of that. Her main crime may have been contempt for the English language.

But it’s not just jurors who are guilty. An advertisement in a national paper for a well-known digital TV channel recently carried a glaring spelling mistake in the headline. Does this matter? The old saw goes that a sign saying Tomato’s 80p a kilo will be more effective than a correctly spelt sign offering the same produce for £1.50 a kilo. Of course, the spelling skills of a market trader do not have a bearing on the quality of his goods and, let’s face it, copywriters take plenty of liberties with grammar. Like having sentences with no verbs. However there are occasions when bad copy will seriously damage your business. I recently received an e-shot from an education company with a spelling mistake in it. Bad enough that it obviously went out to their entire prospective client database. Even worse that, on visiting their website, I found loads more errors and spelling mistakes. Do I want to learn with a company that can’t even check its own output? Or worse still doesn’t even realize there are errors? I suppose since certain exam setters can’t be bothered to check whether questions are actually answerable perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.

A part of the problem is the belief that everyone can do anything, no doubt inspired by reality TV shows such as The Apprentice and Britain’s Got Talent in which people without talent or noticeable business acumen are encouraged to think otherwise. So similarly loads of people think anyone can write copy or design marketing material when the truth is you risk seriously spoiling your ship for a ha’porth of tar. And it really is a ha’porth compared to some of the expenses, from legal advice to office refurbishment, which many businesses pay without batting an eyelid.

Of course investing in copywriting expertise doesn’t just mean avoiding howlers. That surely is the very least you should demand from your marketing material. The real bonus of copywriters is their ability to make sure your message is got across in the most interesting, eye-catching and immediate way. Today copywriters can also bring new skills to the party such as writing SEO friendly copy, which will appeal to the search engines without sounding like it’s been written by a machine and helping you with blogs, e-shots and virals.

So next time your marketing needs words, don’t settle for a misspelt youth, treat your business to a real caffeine boost with some proper copy.

From Facebook Flim Flam to Apple Genius

January 26th, 2011

According to the Evening Standard, those ‘at the frontiers of technology’ reckon emails are dying out. On closer inspection of the article it appears the aforementioned gurus prove to be none other than PR men for Facebook and Twitter. No vested interest there then. Especially as their thesis is that all organisations will eventually adopt their own Twitter and Facebook platforms for carrying out their internal communications. Now no-one doubts the immense power of these online phenomena. However the clue is in the name they are given – social media. That’s what there are there for – social ends not business ones. The idea that a major corporation would trust its most protected secrets to the hands of a third party is of course bunkum. Who knows who may one day own all the information related to Facebook and Twitter. As Aleks Krotoski pointed out in her excellent BBC2 series, The Virtual Revolution, when in pre-war Holland a census noted everyone’s religious persuasion, no-one guessed that the ultimate owners of the information would be the Nazis. For those of us who still like the odd conversation to be private, or who simply want to share a file or two with a specific recipient the email still seems to hold all the aces.

We must all beware of the way these goliaths of the internet age big themselves up, because ultimately there is danger in any organisation becoming too powerful. Competition is stifled and the playing field becomes uneven. We must not so readily believe their own publicity. And we must always remember that what sprang up so quickly can just as easily disappear. Remember Friends Reunited and Bebo? Already there is a vague feeling that Facebook is less cool than it was now that everyone’s parents are on it too. Who wants to attend a disco where Dad’s dancing?

Talking of po-faced monoliths bigging themselves up, I took my daughter’s 18month old ipod back to the new Covent Garden Apple store before Christmas. It was all rather like visiting the Wizard of Oz, and naturally I couldn’t see one of the oh-so-busy ipad carrying gurus immediately, I had to book an appointment for the next day at something they modestly call the Genius desk. When I presented the ipod I was told that the battery had expired and that a replacement would be £60 odd. £60 for a new battery in a product less than 2 years old? Now that’s what I call genius.

Will Advertisers get behind the Times?

November 3rd, 2010

The Times have revealed that 105,000 people have subscribed to the online version of the paper. Despite their proclaimed joy at this figure, it in fact represents a fall of 90% in their online readership. It is also a cumulative figure across 4 months and may contain the same people subscribing more than once. Not surprisingly advertisers have been fairly unimpressed, voting with their feet.

So is there a future in paywalls for newspapers? When the news is available freely from other papers and the BBC it seems unlikely that enough people will pay. The content has to be specialist and unobtainable elsewhere for it to be worth paying for. Having said that, cricket site is free and provides a huge number of informative articles without a paywall. Currently cricinfo are advertising for writers on their site. As a cricket-loving copywriter I thought this might be worth investigating until I discovered that there was no actual fee for accepted articles – just the glory of appearing on the site. The Times would argue that if journalism is given away free then journalists can’t expect to get paid. Other publications hope online ad revenue will foot the bill.

It’s interesting to note that whenever the Times paywall goes down, certain Times journalists tweet this fact in a desperate attempt to get more people reading their articles. And of course if journalists see they are not being read, they may well feel more inclined to move to rival papers where their online presence is greater.

At the same time as this debate rages, back in the physical world the Independent has just launched a new 20p version and the Standard continues to be a completely free newspaper. This strategy represents the polar opposite to that of Murdoch and it will be fascinating to see which model wins. Whatever the outcome, advertisers should benefit from the increased competition and the newspapers’ greater reliance on paid for advertising.

When Sourcing Your Advertising Never Follow the Crowd.

September 30th, 2010

The news that Unilever had crowdsourced its new Peperami TV advertisement should have sent shivers throughout the advertising world. The idea is that a client can post a brief on an opensource website and wait for the hungry creatives to respond. In the case of Peperami, this was 1800 people. The prize of writing the new commercial went to two advertising creatives, which was reassuring, but the ramifications of this kind of online pitch are worth considering. Whilst it might seem democratic to offer a creative brief to everyone in the world, what it actually means, if carried to its logical conclusion, is that eventually no career creatives will exist. You can’t build a career out of odds of one in 1800, so ultimately the only people able to submit creative work are bound to be amateur.

Does all this matter? It does, because as in all things, becoming proficient at something takes time and effort (hence the Peperami brief was won by creative professionals). If no-one is to be paid for this time and effort, the standard will undoubtedly fall. There’s an interesting corollary to this scenario in the other ‘arts’ fields. In music, new bands can now become famous without a label, which is in many ways good. But it will probably be hard for a musician or group to sustain a long-term career because of the sheer volume of new and accessible competition. On the radio recently I heard a Hollywood film director complaining of the same problem after someone who had directed a youtube film had been offered a directing job on a big movie. Already comedians’ shelf lives are very short – at least if you’ve made it big enough in the first instance you can go off and do travel documentaries and endless lookalike comedy panel shows.

In the new world order, many more people will of course get their 15 minutes of creative fame, but what we will miss out on is the development of an artist over a long period. The good news however is that, at least in advertising, creatives are fighting back – on linkedin copywriters and designers have been queueing up to slag off the latest crowdsourcing site, And whilst we’re at it, let’s all revile those advertising agencies who have recently had the great idea of running competitions on behalf of their clients to find the next ad in a campaign. Have they got no ideas of their own? Or would they really prefer to drive their clients into the open arms of opensourcing?

Will Digitally Targeted Posters Drive Your Customers Up the Wall?

August 17th, 2010

I was recently subjected to a spate of ads on my Facebook page crudely targeting me specifically by my age. I didn’t find this engaging, but rather intrusive and hectoring. It got me thinking about the dangers of media that knows too much about its viewers. I’m OK with the fact that when you view content on the web the banner ads reflect things you have recently been searching for or looking at. I don’t mind getting targeted for theatre tickets or shed paint if that’s what I have been viewing. The creativity of the ads is also not compromised in this kind of scenario. However if a billboard was to change its message to reflect something personal about the viewer, this might be sinister or even slightly threatening.
In Tokyo at the moment just such a billboard is being trialled. Fitted with a camera it can work out your age and sex and change the ad displayed accordingly. This might just be the start. In the future the camera might be able to tap into online information about you. While the possibilities might seem endless for the advertiser, a large proportion of the target audience might be fairly horrified by this, feeling their privacy was being grossly infringed. An advertisement’s ability to charm would also be compromised by such a direct approach. Subtlety has always been the most successful way to persuade consumers, especially the English who have never liked the hard sell. Banging them over the head tends to be counterproductive.
So will we see this innovation in the UK? More than likely this digital version of the foot-in-the-door salesman will arrive here soon. Poster companies need to regain some of the media spend lost to the internet. When it does arrive however, advertisers would do well to remember that knowing something about your target market doesn’t mean ramming it down their throats. I would suggest “Hey you look menopausal, try this HRT” is never going to be a successful headline. As ever, gently engaging your audience with something they are likely to identify with is the key to sales success. We’re all only human after all.

In the shadow of the web

June 29th, 2010

Today my 14 year old daughter, Emily, is shadowing me at work.  I have shown her some of the websites we are working on, an SEO program we are using and a couple of advertising campaigns we are in the process of preparing. She has also seen me answer some emails from clients, chase up an outstanding invoice and watched one of our designers search online photolibraries for pictures for a newsletter. It makes me realise how much of our lives are now spent staring at the small screen, and how  ‘live’  human interaction has decreased in the workplace. This is mirrored in people’s social lives too, with fewer people going out in the evening. Instead the desire for human communication is met by the social media sites which have stepped in to replace the ‘water cooler’ moments at work and the traditional ‘meeting down the pub’ in the evening. Because this is the dominant new form of human exchange, its importance to marketeers can not be overestimated. Ask Emily and her friends - their dedication to a single media platform - Facebook – is a brand manager’s dream.